BottleRock set up shop in wine country for five days this past week at the Napa Expo Center. It was hot, in the 80s and sunny as could be. The crowd was extremely eclectic, filled with Napa locals, Sacramento folks, well-dressed wine aficionados, and young pseudo hipsters. With bands like Zac Brown Band, The Black Keys, and Dwight Yoakam, the music pot was melted.
It was interesting to be outside the circuit of music festivals that usually cater to indie lovers such as myself. I was surrounded by people sipping wine -- and as Sharon Van Etten put it, "Capri-sun cocktails" -- discussing the previous day's acts with fervor. While waiting for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros to take the stage on Saturday, the group around me recounted the Black Keys' closing performance on Friday night.
The Black Keys. Photo courtesy of Jerome Brunet and BottleRock Napa Valley
The Black Keys was a special set. As I mentioned in my pre-festival wish list, I was excited to see their creative stage set-up in the spirit of blues brothers' rock. This tour's stage consisted of a wall of various light fixtures, antique to new. The band members themselves seemed a bit fatigued on the tail end of their world tour, but they played to an audience that was more than excited to scream along with every word, going ballistic during their favorite songs.
One highlight was their performance of "Little Black Submarines" off their 2011 release, El Camino. The song built slowly and beautifully with singer Dan Auerbach soloing on his Harmony guitar, spotlit on a dark stage. The lights went out just before the bridge, exploding moments later with drummer Pat Carney joining in, pushing the momentum forward and transforming the downbeat soul rock song into a rock and roll jam. The Black Keys were in full form. It's about time for a new album (rumor has it they're recording this summer) so I expect an even more evolved tour from them the next time around. Needless to say, no one left BottleRock Friday night without having sufficiently rocked out, myself included.
Best Coast. Photo courtesy of Paige Parsons and BottleRock Napa Valley
There were three main stages at BottleRock, one very large, one medium sized, and one small and intimate. The medium-sized Citi Stage proved to be my favorite on Saturday. I only strayed for Best Coast at the Willpower Stage upon my arrival to the fest in the early afternoon. They were a pleasant surprise. I didn't enjoy Best Coast at Treasure Island last year as much as I hoped I would. This time, their set closely resembled the soaring surf rock on their records. Best Coast was spot on early in the day and the "best" (pun intended), way to start the festival for me on Saturday in Napa.
After Best Coast I settled at the Citi Stage for Sharon Van Etten. I absolutely adore Van Etten's dark and airy folk songs, but was skeptical as to how they would translate on a blazing hot summer day, with the sun beating down. Her set was transcendent and powerful. Her electric guitar pierced the heat and transported us to a cooler, darker place, so much so I almost forgot how much I was sweating.
Dwight Yoakam graced the Citi Stage with his presence after Allen Stone. The band donned sequined western wear blazers and Dwight rocked his cowboy hat and double denim. He had a story about each song, playing old favorites such as "Honky Tonk Man" and "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere." He gave us some sage advice not to look directly into the sun, and thanked us for coming out in the heat of the day for some country and Western.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Photo courtesy of BottleRock Napa Valley
I counted ten members of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on stage at BottleRock, the usual number. What always intrigues me about this Los Angeles-based band is how comfortable they are on stage. Singers Alexander Ebert and Jade Castrinos interact with each other and the audience with ease and excitement. Ebert engaged the crowd with questions, story telling, and feedback. The set ended on the highest of notes and a cloud of dust with the popular track "Home."
Sunday was even warmer with a bit more of a breeze. I sought refuge under the wind-screened pavilion of the Miner Stage for Mavis Staples. She commanded that stage and that microphone like a Roman emperor and when the first notes of "The Weight" began to play with "I rode into Nazareth…" all the heat-stricken people under that pavilion shot to their feet. Throughout her set I was breathless and in disbelief that I was standing before this living legend who could provide such deliverance with her voice. Near the end of her performance of "Freedom Highway" she trailed on and on: "Made up my mind and I won't turn around… I will be on freedom highway until Dr. King's dream has been realized. I won't turn around."
GROUPLOVE. Photo courtesy of Dylan Bonick and BottleRock Napa Valley
Without comparison to Mavis Staples, because let's just be honest, that would be music blasphemy, GROUPLOVE stole my heart at BottleRock. Hannah Hooper told terrible joke, "Hey Napa, you guys got any grapes?" and it was impossible to be upset in the face of her infectious charisma. Every song they played had the audience smiling, jumping, and climbing as high into the air as they could. The band seemed to be enjoying themselves too. "Slow" began just like that, slow, with Hooper showcasing her gorgeous emotive vocals. The musical arrangement built steadily and rapidly with just a touch of agitation foreshadowing the eruption at the finale of the song. All eyes were on the band as they threw their heads back and forth in perfect time.
I tend to enjoy seeing folk bands and low key music live at a festival, but BottleRock was too hot for that. The sweat was already rolling down everyone's back, so what's left is to dance, it makes the heat bearable. Tickets are already available for next year's fest, scheduled for May 9-11, 2014, a bold move without a line-up, but there really is something for everyone at this festival. For more information visit bottlerocknapavalley.com.